Auto dealer’s philanthropy a pact with God

Sixty-three years ago, Bob Baker was a young Army corporal stationed at Outpost Harry during the Korean War when he embarked on what his commanders warned would be a suicide mission. When he ended up in the middle of a minefield during the night patrol for Chinese soldiers, he decided it was a good time to make a deal with God.

“I told him, if he spared me that night, I would go home, get married, have six children, become a success and do whatever he wanted me to do,” Baker said. “With all the millions of dollars I’ve given away over the years, I believe that’s what God wanted me to do.”

During the past 10 years, the founder of San Diego’s Bob Baker Auto Group has donated from $500,000 to $1.7 million a year for projects that have included Catholic churches and schools, programs for military veterans and underwriting for Solutions for Change, a nonprofit that helps get North County homeless families off the streets.

Baker, 84, said he’s drawn to causes where he feels a personal connection. The Rancho Santa Fe resident was homeless as a boy, his faith saw him through years of hardship, and he witnessed the horrors of war and knows how it can impact veterans trying to reintegrate into society.

“Bob is a hands-on kind of donor,” said Chris Megison, founding president for Solutions for Change in Vista. “A lot of philanthropists will want to see our audited financial statements and study our plans, but Bob is the kind of philanthropist who wants to get in the car with me and drive out to see what we’re doing firsthand.”

Baker’s rags-to-riches story, detailed in his 2005 autobiography, “Against All Odds,” began in 1931 Los Angeles, when he was born into an unhappy, Depression-era home. His father, the first-generation son of Lebanese immigrants, was a used car salesman. He was also an abusive alcoholic and a gambler.

To help his struggling family make ends meet, 8-year-old Bob sold magazines (purchased for 8 cents and sold for a dime), then took on a newspaper route. When he was 10, his parents divorced and Bob spent the rest of his childhood in foster homes and boarding houses and on the streets. The only constants in his life were his faith and his grandmother, Monnie.

“I credit her with saving me,” he said. “I don’t know what I would’ve done without her.”

From ninth grade, his dream was to become a Catholic priest, but sons from divorced families weren’t allowed to enter the priesthood. Instead, right after high school in 1951, he and two buddies enlisted in the Army to fight in the Korean War. During his service overseas, Baker went on 27 night patrols, earned two Bronze Stars and avoided getting shot or killed on at least seven occasions.

When he returned home to L.A. in 1953, he married his sweetheart, Sherrill King, and signed up to attend a business college on the GI Bill. But with no income, he reluctantly agreed to follow in his estranged father’s footsteps and sell cars at a friend’s downtown Ford dealership. He vowed he would sell cars only for a little while, but when Sherrill got pregnant with their first child, he agreed to stay.

A born salesman with a quick smile, he became an instant success. From sales (first in L.A., then San Diego), he moved up to management. Then in 1965, he moved his family to Indiana, where he bought a share in his first dealership with their life savings and a $20,000 loan from his mother-in-law. Just three years later, he was able to buy out his partners.

Over the next decade, he grew his business to more than 25 dealerships in California and Indiana, but the bicoastal business put a strain on his wife, who was raising their five children mostly alone. In 1977, they returned to San Diego and he sold all of the dealerships that were more than 100 miles from their home in Rancho Santa Fe.

At its peak, the Bob Baker Auto Group had $450 million in sales, but there were hard times ahead for Baker, both financially and emotionally. When he tried to combine his Chrysler and Ford franchises at one dealership in the 1980s, he spent eight years in a legal battle with Chrysler.

Much worse was to come. In August 2009, a family of four was killed while riding in a loaner car from Baker’s Lexus dealership in El Cajon. Baker said he was devastated by the deaths, which occurred when the car’s accelerator pedal became stuck and the car raced out of control.

Family members of the victims — CHP Officer Mark Saylor, his wife, daughter and brother-in-law — sued Baker and Toyota for wrongful death. Local and federal investigations found that improperly installed floor mats in the Lexus model could cause the gas pedal to stick. Since then, Toyota has recalled 10 million cars for repairs and has paid more than $1 billion in fines and lawsuits. Baker paid an undisclosed sum to relatives of the Saylors last March and he is still in litigation with Toyota.

Baker called the Saylor tragedy one of the lowest points of his life. It happened when he was going through a series of personal losses. In 2008, he battled prostate cancer, lost his brother (and fellow auto dealer) Ron Baker and learned that his son, Michael, had health problems that would prohibit him from taking over the family business. Then in 2009, his wife of 55 years, Sherrill, died of liver cancer just four months before the Saylor crash.

The heartbreak and loneliness took a toll, but Baker said things brightened about five years ago when he met his second wife, Dita, who sold him lotion at a local Nordstrom. These days, he’s semi-retired. He recently sold his Toyota dealership to Greg Miller, an heir to the Larry H. Miller Dealership Group in Utah, and within two years he plans to be retired. Then he’ll devote all of his time to philanthropy and enjoying life.

Past projects have included St. Vincent de Paul Village downtown, where founder Father Joe Carroll describes him as “always very generous.” He also donated more than $1 million to the construction of St. Therese of Carmel Catholic Church in Carmel Valley (which is named for Baker’s patron saint) and the building of a chapel at Cathedral Catholic High.

He discovered the Solutions for Change charity in 2013 and has since become one if its champions. Most recently, he signed on as title sponsor for its 2015 gala, which honored military veterans. He said he was drawn to the cause because the Vista nonprofit helps find homes for the families of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and addictions.

“It helps service people who are on drugs or who can’t live with themselves after what they experienced in war,” he said. “I was spared, but so many people are not, and they have a hard time when they get back.”

Megison, a Marine veteran, said he turns away 17 veteran homeless families a month because his organization doesn’t have enough room for them in its apartment complexes. To qualify for housing, applicants must attend Solutions University, a 1,000-day program that includes counseling, classes on parenting, household finances and work experience. The goal is to stop the patterns of behavior that will land participants back on the streets.

“He fell in love with our model,” Megison said of Baker. “He loves that we go deeper to help people and solve problems. But we can’t do it without social purpose investors like Bob. He said he hears a lot of promises from other charities, but not a lot of change, and here he sees action. I think it appeals to his entrepreneurial spirit.”

– Pam Kragen is a writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune